USC Football: 5 Ways Trojans Will Flourish in Steve Sarkisian's Offense
Among the more intriguing facets of Steve Sarkisian's hire as USC head coach is the installation of a new offensive philosophy. Long stalwarts of the pro-style, the Trojans have spent spring practices laying the foundation for a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme that could transform the program's identity.
USC has the talent to make it work, and according to Sarkisian, the pieces are coming into place in time for the start of the 2014 season.
"Believe me, these practices are harder than the games," he said, via USCTrojans.com. "They'll be in great shape when September rolls around, they'll be ready to play."
Playing to QB Cody Kessler's Strengths
Quarterback Cody Kessler found his rhythm by season's end in 2013 after offensive coordinator Clay Helton assumed play-calling duties from ousted head coach Lane Kiffin. The Trojans continued to run a pro-style offense, but Helton opened more of the playbook to Kessler.
Though Sarkisian has yet to officially name a starter, the case for Kessler looks strong. Sarkisian said he "suspect[s] we'll [announce the starter] before the end of spring," per the Los Angeles Times.
"I feel a lot more confident," Kessler told Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated. "I'm taking the approach that this is my team, these guys are going to follow me. I'm going to be the leader of this team."
His success with more options last season should benefit Kessler in 2014. As running back Tre Madden told NeonTommy.com, the quarterback will have three, on-the-fly options on every snap.
"When we get in a game [situation], I can give a signal and tell [other players] what they need to do," Kessler explained to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Creating Space for WR Nelson Agholor
With erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee battling injury, junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor emerged as USC's most reliable target in 2013. He finished the campaign with team highs in yards (918) and touchdown receptions (six).
Lee is headed to the NFL, which means Agholor will be the focal point of the Trojans' passing attack in 2014. Pac-12 defenses are well-aware of his big-play ability and will game-plan accordingly. However, the new system's emphasis on spreading out defenses and creating personnel mismatches will make containing him difficult.
His breakaway speed is perfectly suited to Sarkisian's scheme, which Bleacher Report National Analyst Michael Felder writes has "a tremendous route tree."
Agholor can make tacklers miss on quick outs, break free on intermediate routes and burn defensive backs on deep patterns. His many skills will allow Sarkisian to explore the entire playbook, which will give Agholor the opportunity to do what he does best.
"Nelson kinda does what he does, keeps making big plays," Sarkisian told reporters after Tuesday's practice, per USCTrojans.com.
Opportunities to Mix Running Backs
Sarkisian inherits a roster that is stocked with running back talent, though ironically only two backs have been available in spring practices: Tre Madden and Jahleel Pinner.
Nevertheless, the Trojans should be at full strength at arguably the deepest position on the roster by the start of the season. Madden rejoins Javorius "Buck" Allen, both of whom shouldered feature-back responsibilities in 2013.
Sarkisian favored a game plan with a clear No. 1 ball-carrier at Washington. Running back Bishop Sankey rushed 327 times last season. USC may employ a similar strategy with its feature back in 2014, but Sarkisian alluded to situational schemes.
"I don’t know if he will be a feature back for us, but he’s a guy that we know we can put in short yard situations," Sarkisian said of Madden, per the Daily Trojan.
Indeed, the head coach will have his pick of running backs to use, depending on circumstance. And with the Trojans taking more snaps, the number of carries to go around will multiply.
Playmaking Opportunities for the Freshmen
The USC coaching staff has the unique luxury of playing 5-star recruits Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith on both sides of the ball, as both were standouts in the secondary and receiving corps of their prep teams.
Sarkisian plans to start Smith on offense, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
"He has excellent body control and uses his size and athleticism to jump over smaller defensive backs," Scout.com analyst Greg Biggins writes of the 6'1", 200-pound Smith.
Jackson's role is also intriguing. He's considerably smaller than Smith at 5'9", 182 pounds. With a 4.44 40-yard dash time, Jackson is reminiscent of another recent, two-way prospect in the Pac-12: former Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas.
Thomas debuted primarily as a pass-catcher for the Ducks, using his speed on swing routes and other short passes in Oregon's version of the hurry-up spread. Jackson could be a potential playmaker in the same vein in Sarkisian's version, if the coach opts to play the freshman on offense.
Certainly heightened tempo on the offensive side promises to challenge USC's endurance on the defensive side. Last year, Sarkisian's first of running a hurry-up offense at Washington, the Huskies averaged 28:41 in time of possession—No. 93 in the nation. That's a stark contrast from the Trojans' No. 10-ranked, 33:04 average time of possession.
Such is the nature of the hurry-up system, which is gaining popularity around the Pac-12.
More time spent on the field can be taxing on a defense, particularly one with the depth issues that have haunted USC in recent years. But defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said, via Scout.com's SCPlaybook, that facing the system in practice promises to prepare the Trojans for the challenges of doing so on game days:
The number of plays is probably a little different for them, so later in practice we have to learn to sustain not only the physical conditioning but the mental conditioning where it’s the ninth play in a row that you’ve been in. You have to go out and play with great technique and fundamentals like you did on the first snap. That’s what this whole tempo thing is about, so it’s great for us to practice against it.